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Staging a Slice of Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Street Scene,” didn’t have an easy time getting off the ground.

Most New York theater managers flatly rejected producing it. Lots of actors turned down roles because they believed the play would flop.

Director George Cukor walked out after the third day of rehearsals, and neither George Abbott, George S. Kaufman nor Rouben Mamoulian could be induced to step in. The poor author ultimately had to direct his own play too.

But when “Street Scene” finally opened on Broadway, it turned out to be an explosive hit, winning universally favorable reviews. It ran for 601 performances there, then moved on to successful tours of the U.S., Britain and Europe.

Samuel Goldwyn turned Rice’s grim slice-of-life drama into a popular film in 1931, and composer Kurt Weill and poet Langston Hughes made an opera out of it in 1947.

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It’s the opera version that Cal State Fullerton is presenting Thursday through Sunday at the Little Theatre. Dean Hess is the stage director. Janet Smith and Mark Salters are the musical directors. Ricardo Soto is the conductor.

The production is partially funded through a $3,750 grant from the New York-based Kurt Weill Foundation in conjunction with the observance of the Kurt Weill Centenary.

“We were one of five universities to receive grants,” said music director Smith, who also wrote the grant application.

“Without it, we would have been able to do ‘Street Scene,’ but it would have been on a shoestring.”

The music department produces an opera every spring. Every other year, it collaborates with the theater department for a fuller production.

“We also get an orchestra,” Smith said. “The other years, we only have a piano or two pianos.”

The opera follows the play “very strictly,” stage director Hess said.

On a sultry summer evening, residents of a New York tenement sit on the front stoop, complain about the heat and gossip about their neighbors. One of them will discover his wife is having an affair with the milkman and the results will be tragic.

“It’s a story of people trying to pull themselves out of this rotten New York tenement neighborhood,” Hess said. “They are working so hard to get away from this oppressive life.

“It was true in 1936, in the middle of the Depression, and true again in 1947 when the opera came out. The same is true today. You can go to New York today and find neighborhoods like this, though not necessarily with the white immigrants that ‘Street Scene’ discusses.

“I’ve been a fan of ‘Street Scene’ since I was a teenager. I find the piece timeless.”

Cal State Fullerton has its own melting pot of a cast.

“Our Jewish family has ended up being mostly an Asian family,” Smith said. “The Hildebrand family is a black family. It just happened that way. But it turned out to make the story more up-to-date.”

“I don’t think Elmer Rice, Langston Hughes or Kurt Weill would object to that in any way, shape or form,” added Hess. “It’s the new melting pot. Understanding the difficulties of foreigners coming to this country is not difficult for most of the people [in the cast].”

The cast of 45, including six children, is “the biggest cast we’ve ever had,” Smith said.

Hess said that it’s wonderful working with students, some of whom are on stage for the first time. “Their energy and drive and their work has been just an incredible amount of fun.”

Smith has also cast her pet, Buster Smith, who plays a dog named Queenie.

“He is the absolute center of attention when he comes on stage,” Smith said. “He’s just as proud as he can be.”

Both directors are fans of Weill’s crossover music, a hybrid of opera and Broadway.

“It is a perfect opportunity for us to use the talents of the theater department and the music department, and for the students and faculty to work together. We don’t get to do this any other time. It’s really a special event when it does occur.”

Hess regards Weill’s transitions from speech to song and back again as particularly deftly accomplished.

“The line that follows many of the arias is a total continuation of the thought,” he said. “That makes moving from aria into dialogue much easier. Unlike musical comedy, where you get to the end of a song--bang, applause--and something else starts. There are some of those moments, but others blend in so sophisticated a manner that the thought train continues.”

The play is also written in a cyclical fashion.

“The final scene is identical to the opening scene,” Hess said. “It’s right back to the opening number. Although the people might complain about the neighborhood, they’re not interested in moving out. Their home is there, even though they complain.”

But the young people in the play provide a bright contrast to their parents.

“The play is studded with metaphors--lilac bush blooming, birds flying free, many metaphors about life, love, joy, happiness--and going out, being free.”

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at chris.pasles@latimes.com.

SHOW TIMES

Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene” runs Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center Little Theatre, Cal State Fullerton, Nutwood Avenue and State College Boulevard, Fullerton. $15. (714) 278-3371.


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